Galloping words: The poetry of horse-riding (Column: Bookends XLI)

By Vikas Datta (09:38)

The Ancient Greeks credited Poseidon, the sea deity, with being the creator of horses, drawing a correspondence between the waves from his realm crashing on the shore and the galloping of majestic, spirited steeds. Can we draw a related analogy to equate ideas or, better still, words – the prime medium used to express them – with horses and their different gaits? The resemblance is not far-fetched as it may apparently seem, especially as far as poetry is concerned. A pensive trot, a gentle canter, a spirited gallop and more can be discerned in various examples of verse. And then, various episodes of horse-riding have underlaid some of the most stirring poetry seen in western letters.

One of the earliest examples was Robert Browning’s “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” (1845), a thrilling account of three riders setting out from Ghent (in Flanders of today’s Belgium) to Aix (Aix-la-Chapelle, now Aachen in today’s Germany) told by an unnamed narrator.

What the news is we never come to know save it is “which alone could save Aix from her fate”, but in the breathless evocation of endurance beyond limits in an era without modern communication or transport or even metalled roads, the poem can scarcely be equalled. “I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;/ I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three..” to “Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace/Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place”.

But first Dirck’s horse collapses in exhaustion and then, as they are within sight of Aix, Joris’ mount drops dead, and it is left to the unnamed narrator to complete the quest. “Then I cast loose my buff-coat, each holster let fall,/Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,/Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,/ Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;/Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,/Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.”

This was a fictional exploit, but two certifiably madcap but gallant cavalry charges were immortalised by Britain’s then Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Of them, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) is better known for its portrayal of the suicidal charge “into the Valley of Death” by the 600, displaying unquestioned obedience even to an order, maybe ill-thought but likely to prove fatal to most of them. A lesser-known – but successful – event earlier the same day (Oct 25, 1854) was recounted in “The Charge of the Heavy Brigade”.

This related to an on-the-spur (excuse the pun) decision by its commander, Gen. James Yorke Scarlett, to attack the advancing Russian cavalry with a part of his force. The only flaw was that the direction was – against all military logic – uphill.

“For Scarlett and Scarlett’s three hundred were riding by/When the points of the Russian lances arose in the sky”, but the general “look’d at the host that had halted he knew not why,/And he turn’d half round, and he bade his trumpeter sound/To the charge, and he rode on ahead, as he waved his blade/To the gallant three hundred whose glory will never die-/’Follow,’ and up the hill, up the hill, up the hill,/Follow’d the Heavy Brigade.”

The going was tough as the “dark-muffled Russian crowd/Folded its wings from the left and the right, And roll’d them around like a cloud,” and it is feared they are lost. But riding “like victors and lords”, our gallants “Struck with the sword-hand and slew,/Down with the bridle-hand drew/The foe from the saddle and threw/Underfoot there in the fray”.

Ultimately: “…. suddenly shock upon shock/Stagger’d the mass from without,/Drove it in wild disarray,/For our men gallopt up with a cheer and a shout,/And the foeman surged, and waver’d, and reel’d/Up the hill, up the hill, up the hill, out of the field,/And over the brow and away.”

There are more examples of daring feats on the saddle-back. There is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1860) about the actions of of his American compatriot April 18, 1775, although not very accurate historically, or as far as a chase is concerned, than that between Pakhtun bandit chief Kamal, and the Colonel’s son in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West” (1889).

But all verse about horse-riding is not about breathless gallops or intense conflict. Some are more contemplative, touching on the rider-steed relationship.

“My little horse must think it queer/To stop without a farmhouse near/Between the woods and frozen lake/The darkest evening of the year./He gives his harness bells a shake/To ask if there is some mistake.” The poem is of course Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1922).

Unfortunately, changing modes of transport make it unlikely that we will see any recent examples!

(23.11.2014 – Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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